With spirits, wine, and cocktails in the mix, Vancouver's Hopscotch Festival goes beyond whisky and beer

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      When Hopscotch started out in 1995, the craft brewing scene had yet to come to life, and the single-day festival dedicated to whisky and beer featured fewer than three dozen vendors. Along with those beverage industries, the local fest has grown up over the years.

      The 2017 fete lasts nearly a full week, wrapping spirits, cider, wine, and cocktails into the mix, and at its signature weekend tasting event plays host to more than 130 exhibitors with about 400 products available for tasting.

      Given Vancouverites’ love and knowledge of so many types of artisanal drinks, it’s hard to remember the days when the beer selection at most bars and restaurants was limited to a handful of pale-yellow pours.

      “Twenty years ago, beer was beer,” says Adam Bloch, Hopscotch executive producer, speaking to the Straight on a conference call with associate producer Dax Droski. “That’s not the case anymore. There are so many different brands, varieties, flavours, and accents—chocolate, peach, grapefruit, cinnamon, bacon… On an educational level, the festival gives people an opportunity to really learn what’s out there, and on a micro level, to learn what makes every one so different.”

      Adds Droski: “Hopscotch is known for being Scotch- and beer-focused, and whisky is very much the event’s anchor, but we’ve gone in the direction of adding other spirits because people want to try a number of different artisan products. On the educational side, people have the opportunity to try products that they may never pick up on their own. It’s a festival of libations.”

      While Bloch and Droski are running the popular fest together for the first time this year, neither is new to putting on massive, successful, fun-fuelled events. Bloch’s involvement in Hopscotch, in fact, goes back well over a decade, to when it was being helmed by Dave Barnett. Bloch—who had moved to Vancouver from Toronto, where he finished an economics degree, via Los Angeles, where he had pursued acting—had met Barnett at the Media Club, and the two became fast friends. Having started producing events to make money to support his film work here, Bloch, eager to be part of Hopscotch, helped get the word out by handing out flyers. As time went by, he started doing more and more, so it only made sense for him to take over when Barnett was ready to move on to other things.

      Bloch met Droski years ago after the latter had left Ontario for B.C. in 2000 with the intention of completing a business degree. A musician, he played in several bands and, along with a DJ pal, ended up putting on blowout year-end college parties at the now-defunct Purple Onion. He went on to start his own events and “brand activation” company called Parade Agency as well as Cocktails and Canapes Catering and Events. Droski is also a partner in the Deighton Cup, an annual gala held at the Hastings Racetrack in partnership with the Social Concierge.

      The two friends bring different talents to the table; Bloch, whose dad was an accountant, describes himself as the one with the mathematical mind who pores over numbers and details; Droski, who helps companies with branding strategies, is the ideas guy.

      “Sometimes we butt heads,” Bloch says. “He’s the dreamer, I’m the realist, but we find a way to meet in the middle.”

      Hopscotch producers Adam Bloch (left) and Dax Droskishow off the 22nd annual festival's offerings at Granville Island's Liberty Distillery.
      Amanda Siebert

      Together, they’ve taken guest feedback from past years seriously to revamp the fest in several ways, aside from expanding it to include spirits, cider, wine, and cocktails. One is changing the format of the Grand Tasting Hall—the flagship event taking place on November 24 and 25—so that there are distinct sections: Beers From Around the World, Whisky Corner, the Rose Garden (wine), Spirits of the Globe, and Craft Cocktails, for instance. Each will have a different feel, too; look for live music at the beer section by jazz-funk band Electric Monks and a more mellow vibe where spirits are being sampled.

      There’s also a strong focus on B.C. products, including the tasting hall’s Local: B.C. Craft Beer Pavilion presented by the B.C. Craft Brewers Guild. “We really wanted to emphasize the local aspect,” Bloch says. “There are so many amazing B.C. breweries; they definitely needed their own space.”

      Then there is the tasting hall’s food. Look for Pawn Shop’s tacos, Dixie’s BBQ brisket, and BKH jerky and Singaporean short ribs, and bites from La Pentola, Steel Toad Brewery, and other eateries. There will also be a hot-dog showdown that will see Juno Kim, a creator of successful pop-up restaurants, face off against other local chefs.

      “We really wanted to up the restaurant game this year,” Droski says. “We’ve changed it up and really taken it up to a whole new level.”

      While the substance is there, the new Hopscotch doesn’t forgo style, either. The fest outgrew its original digs at the Rocky Mountaineer Station, having moved the Grand Tasting Hall to the PNE Forum. However, the two overseers say the venue will be entirely unrecognizable once people step inside. Think magnificent, tall drapery and just the right lighting, the latter being provided by Atomic2 Lighting, which works with major film companies.

      In addition to Hopscotch’s Grand Tasting Hall (for which about 3,000 attendees are expected each evening) the fest features dozens of other events, including master classes and dinners. And despite the festival’s firm focus on alcohol, it’s not intended as a place for public drunkenness. The PNE has easy access to public transit, Bloch notes, and Hopscotch is hoping to once again be part of the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch’s Get Home Safe program. “Our number one priority is safety,” Bloch says. “You shouldn’t drink and drive, and it’s not a festival to come and get drunk.”

      Holding the fest in their hands for the first time, Bloch and Droski couldn’t be more excited about what’s to come.

      “There’s such a buzz about the festival,” Droski says. “Consumer palates have completely changed, and people want to learn about what they’re drinking.”

      The Hopscotch Festival of Whisky, Beer and Spirits takes place November 20 to 26 at various Vancouver venues. For full details, or to purchase tickets, visit Hopscotch's website.

      Follow Gail Johnson on Instagram @YVRFitFoodie and Twitter @YVRFitFoodie.